New York Mets

Mets’ Wheeler, Wright and Walker seek to answer spring questions

New York Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler (45) waits to stretch before a spring training baseball workout Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The New York Mets are entering the 2017 season with a strong top to bottom pitching staff, a solid offense and a functional bench. The pieces are in place for a legitimate World Series contender. This hinges largely on health issues. News from Mets’ camp has centered around David Wright, Zack Wheeler and Neil Walker as they try to return from various physical problems. Let’s look at their situations with a realistic projection.

Zack Wheeler

The health of the Mets’ starting pitchers Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Jacob deGrom – all of whom are returning from injuries of their own – is the key to their season. Initial reports on that group are positive. There are, however, looming questions with Wheeler. Wheeler hasn’t pitched competitively on a major league mound since 2014. After Tommy John surgery in 2015, he was expected to return at some point in 2016.

His time frame was repeatedly pushed back amid pain in that elbow. When he finally got onto the mound in a low-level minor league game, he lasted one inning before leaving with pain. The issue was not a recurrence of the torn elbow ligament, but for safety sake and with common sense winning out, the Mets shut him down for the season with an eye on a fresh start for 2017. That fresh start took another downturn as Wheeler experienced “tenderness” and stopped throwing. The Mets are not expressing overt concern over this and it’s being described as scar tissue and nothing more.

Although doctors are saying that Wheeler’s elbow is structurally sound, there must be some realism injected into this situation like the plasma-rich injection that was shot into Wheeler’s elbow and is viewed as the genesis of that scar tissue. It’s going on two-and-a-half years since he threw a pitch in the major leagues, he was shut down when he tried to pitch in 2016, and was shut down in an early bullpen session in 2017 spring training. Instead of debating whether he should start or relieve, how many innings he should pitch or what the strategy should be, it may be time to come to grips with the reality that Wheeler might be one of those cases who does not return from Tommy John surgery “better than ever.” By now, it might be time to confront the growing possibility that he’s not going to pitch at all.

Saying the Mets have to abandon the logical idea of Wheeler going to the bullpen based on this latest setback is secondary to him not being able to get through a bullpen session without having to shut it down. Worrying about his role is irrelevant compared to worrying about whether he’s able to pitch or not.

The Mets received trade inquiries on Robert Gsellman over the winter and resisted those overtures in part because he’s better than they thought he was and in part because they had allowed Bartolo Colon to depart and needed to have some rotation depth in the event Wheeler was limited or couldn’t pitch at all.

Downplaying the issue is par for the course not just for the Mets, but with every team in baseball. But would it be a surprise to anyone if the news broke today that Wheeler was being shut down indefinitely? That he was going to the doctor to get his elbow checked? That he needed another procedure, even a second Tommy John surgery?

This is where the Mets are with Wheeler – they don’t know what they’re getting or if they’ll get anything at all. When they accrued all that young pitching, it stood to reason that one or two wouldn’t live up to the hype; that one or two would get injured. With the 1990s Atlanta Braves, everyone remembers the three Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. They also remember the flash that was Steve Avery – one of the best pitchers in baseball for a three-year period at the outset of that Braves’ run. Others, however, are “remember him?” afterthoughts.

Derek Lilliquist, Tommy Greene, David Nied, Pete Smith – all were well-regarded and some had a brief spurt of productivity, but none became consistent big leaguers let alone stars on a level with their fellow Braves-developed arms.

By now, it should be accepted that Wheeler cannot be counted on in any role. If he pitches, great. If he doesn’t, well, they’d gotten to the point of acceptance of that possibility anyway.

David Wright

The disturbing details of Wright’s neck surgery are related here. Based on the latest procedure and due to spinal stenosis he was already facing an extensive series of pregame rituals to get ready to play on a daily basis, it’s difficult to envision him contributing to the club in the future. That’s not just for 2017. That’s forever.

In spite of his back and neck injuries which make it difficult to believe that he can perform at a functional level on the sandlots, let along in the majors, the Mets are giving him the chance to come back and play. Wright is getting this opportunity for several reasons: the Mets owe it to him; he wants to try, and he has to try.

Few players have been as loyal to the Mets organization as Wright. He could have forced a trade during the depths of the Wilpons’ financial woes; he could have asked out to go to a ready-made team while the Mets rebuilt under Sandy Alderson; he could have abandoned ship as he watched one teammate after another disappear, leaving him the last man standing from the Omar Minaya-built ballclub that came close to that ever-elusive World Series title; he could have demanded to be freed from the new ballpark that was built with pitcher-friendly dimensions diametrically opposed to Wright’s right-center and left-center power lanes; and he could have left as a free agent rather than sign a contract extension.

He didn’t.

David Wright

New York Mets third baseman David Wright, who is recovering from surgery, watches from the dugout rail during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondback Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

He grew up a Mets fan in Virginia, has been with the organization for his entire professional career, evolved into a star in New York and exhibited unusual loyalty believing ownership when it told him that the money would be there when the time came to try to contend. He believed Alderson and his staff when he was told about the wealth of young pitching that was on its way to New York.

In a cruel twist of fate, ownership and baseball operations were telling him the truth about the future. The ballpark was reconfigured to make it fairer for hitters, particularly Wright. And just when the team took its next step, Wright’s body fell apart.

Wright has earned the chance to try and be a part of this young team. He’s the captain and is worshiped in the clubhouse. The media and opposition hold him in high regard. He deserves every chance and accommodation as he makes his attempt to play. The question is whether he can or not.

Somewhat harshly, the truth is that Wright’s case is similar to Prince Fielder’s with the Texas Rangers as Fielder retired in every sense except actually saying it because doing so compromises the club’s ability to collect on the insurance. It’s semantics and legalese – “doctors say I can’t play”  – but it had to be done. Fielder tried to play and couldn’t. Wright is trying to play and, judging by what he’s dealing with, it’s becoming increasingly clear that he won’t be able to either.

Neil Walker

When the Mets acquired Walker from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Jonathon Niese after the 2015 season, he was expected to be a one-year rental with the perfunctory “we’ll see” sans any real intention of a longer term union. In 2016 and functioning under the shadow of replacing 2015 postseason hero Daniel Murphy while Murphy was in the middle of a season for the Washington Nationals in which he’d eventually come in second in the voting for National League Most Valuable Player, Walker was in the midst of his greatest offensive season and was one of the Mets’ best clutch hitters before he was sidelined with surgery for a herniated disc. That opened the door for the Mets to retain him through a reasonable contract extension or by him accepting their qualifying offer, which he eventually did.

It’s a good sign for the Mets that these players they’re acquiring for short-term benefits are making concessions to stay. Yoenis Cespedes did it and so has Walker. While the $17.2 million on a one-year deal is nothing to scoff at, had Walker rejected it, he conceivably could have gotten the $40 million over three years that is floating around as the rumored dollar amount and duration that it will take for he and the Mets to come to an agreement on an extension. This is true even with his back surgery.

Walker sounds positive regarding the prospect of an extension being worked out with the Mets. Obviously, there’s mutual interest. That this is even being broached indicates that Walker’s back is not expected to be an issue. On the field, it behooves the Mets to shore up their roster with established veterans like Walker given the drastic changes that will take place after this season. For 2018, the Mets’ everyday lineup will look far different than it does now. Wright cannot be counted on now, forget 2018. Lucas Duda is a free agent.

Dominic Smith and Amed Rosario are expected to be ready to take over at first base and shortstop respectively. Shifting Asdrubal Cabrera to third, keeping Jose Reyes as a utility player with Walker at second makes sense. For the outfield, the only certainty is Cespedes in left. Michael Conforto can play right. A strong free-agent class of outfielders with Lorenzo Cain, Carlos Gonzalez and J.D. Martinez offers veteran options.

In short, if they want to have relative security on and off the field, then signing Walker to a reasonable extension is a wise decision.

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